Gothic horror don’t get much more classic than this
This review was posted to Twitter on April 2, 2019
Initial release: 1897
Author: Bram Stoker
Here it is: the gothic novel, about the vampire. I don’t know that there’s a book that more exemplifies gothic fiction. It’s all here: lengthy, atmospheric description, lengthy, wordy dialogue, a sinister fuckboy lurking about in the background. The first four chapters alone are one big Castle of Otranto ripoff. Written and published towards the end of what we might consider the first era of gothic fiction, it’s as much a picture of Victorian England as it is a tale of everybody’s favorite bloodsucking Romanian noble. Adapted a zillion times, sequelized nearly as often, its most famous character has become something of a public domain character as can be seen in the likes of Castlevania. Put simply, Dracula is everywhere, and lurks in just about any vampire setting you can think of.
As an epistolary novel, the story is told through lengthy diary entries and letters, thus seeding the concept of survival horror games telling their stories in documents scattered about. The sheer level of detail in these letters can be unrealistic — but then, so too are those survival horror notes, so it’s a proud tradition. The quick version is this: when a young lawyer from England gets sent to Transylvania to help a wealthy noble buy property in London, he gets wrapped up in a sinister plot by a centuries-old vampire to seek new prey in the more populous and technologically advanced England, and only a small group of friends who know the truth can stop the threat.
There’s a lot to take away from this book; it’s been analyzed to death over the years from multiple perspectives. The role of gender is an obvious one, and the book is somewhat of two minds on it. On one hand, Stoker clearly has Ideas about Women, and uses the main female character, Mina, as his mouthpiece to push back against this newfangled Feminism. On the other hand, Mina not only is the smartest of the characters, but every time they try to exclude her, bad stuff happens. There’s also the subtle racial/ethnic messaging. Dracula and his Szgany (implied to be Romani people) cronies are a clear symbol of British fears of an invasion of foreign hordes on their proper English shores, in part due to the growing size and influence of the German Empire, a fear that seemed justified at the outbreak of the Great War. Guess they had to wait another century or so for Brexit, huh? (Fun fact: Stoker was Irish.)
In spite of its gothic trappings, the novel also sort of nudges a little at what would later be known as weird fiction. Stoker was highly interested in new technologies, especially advances in medical science, and so our heroes use science as a weapon against Dracula. This sense of modernity against ancient evil certainly suggests a message all its own, one that isn’t exactly undercut by the use of crucifixes and classic anti-vampire remedies such as garlic.
One of the bigger departures in this book from gothic fiction as a whole is how action-oriented it can be at times. While characters at times can be long-winded (especially van Helsing, all the more frustrating because of his stereotypically accented English) the action often moves swiftly. It’s obvious that Stoker had a background in theatre — the longwinded speeches by many of the characters definitely seem better suited to a stage play. The few added moments of levity feel like a Shakespearean joke as well. (Dracula in a straw hat, anyone?)
Or how about Quincey, the rich cowboy? The way he seems to be a minor character compared to the rest, existing only to speak in an exaggerated American slang only to switch to British English in the second half, and then out of all the main characters, he’s the one who dies?
I don’t really know what i could possibly add to the conversation about Dracula that hasn’t already been discussed to death. I guess all i can say is that while the book is definitely a relic of its time, it’s still one of the more entertaining gothic novels out there.